Thursday, December 14, 2006


I recently bought a copy of The Mathematics of Poker by Bill Chen and Jerrod Ankenman which is definitely going to be the poker book for a while, The new Harrington on Hold'em if you like. It looks like a really good book, but I know most of it is going to go straight over my head, so I'm sort of wondering why I got it. Anyway, it got me thinking about which poker books I enjoyed the most and gleaned some sort of knowledge out of.

1. Shut Up and Deal by Jesse May

This for me is not just the best poker novel, but easily the best book about poker EVER. This is the book that turned me into a winning player, not Super System or Sklansky or all those sorts of strategy books, but this, a rambling narrative about a young pro trying not to go on tilt. Essentially, it took the mystique out of poker for me, made me realise that their isn't some sort of secret key that unlocks some secret door which leads to being a winner. The descriptions of Foxwoods and Atlantic City so mirrored the Vic it was uncanny - I suddenly saw all the draks and the hustlers and the rocks through new eyes; my naivety and green-ness were finally stripped away.

I bought a copy of it in Vegas when it came out and ended up sitting next to Jesse in the media tournament at the WSOP ('98 I think). He duly signed my copy for me and we have been friendly ever since. I think I have read this novel about seven or eight times - when I first bought it I devoured it, reading it twice in a row. It is a perfect evocation of cardroom life, really capturing what it's like to go to a casino poker room every day. All the various characters that inhabit that type of environment are portrayed with great clarity and empathy. I suspect readers that have taken up the game in the last couple of years wouldn't "get" this book - it was written just before the internet and TV boom. Mind you, several people I know didn't seem to get it at the time either. David Young and the late David Spanier spring to mind, "It hasn't got much of a story has it?", they both moaned. But that's the whole point; poker, like life, is just one long meandering road. When you spend months, actually make that years, just playing poker, nothing really happens apart from pissing your life away and Jesse has written a crystal clear reflection of that.

2. King of a Small World by Rick Bennet

This is also a novel and for those of you who prefer a more traditional narrative this may be more up your street than Shut Up and Deal. It is well written and is mostly set in the private games (spielers rather than home games) of Washington D.C. As an indication of how small the poker scene used to be (even in America) both this and Jesse's book are inspired by the same player (and dedicated to him), one Cong Do.

3. One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson

I chose this because apart from being a well researched biography with plenty of anecdotes concerning Stuey's sick degenerate gambling and drug use I found Ungar's story really moving. I never knew how much pain he suffered from in his life (which explains his prediliction for illicit substances - in fact, I'm surprised he never became a heroin addict) and all of this is chronicled in an unsentimental and fair manner. I wonder how Stuey's style of play would fair these days against all these twenty-somethings who are basically playing like he used to. He was a fascinating character from a time when the game had many characters; unfortunately it seems like the more poker grows the less interesting people there are who play it.

4. The Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez

Sort of the grandaddy of poker books. Another one that I have read several times. With his poetic and literary credentials it's no surprise that Al basically mythologised the early poker scene at the 'Shoe. And why not? Most of the faces that feature are legends and icons of the game (see the last sentence in the paragraph above) and at the time poker was very much a secret little subculture that deserved to be documented. Needless to say Biggest Game is very well written.

5. Fast Company by Jon Bradshaw

Like Alvarez, Bradshaw is a very good writer and this book is a bunch of profiles of master gamblers and hustlers. Poker is represented by pieces on Puggy Pearson and Johnny Moss. Other profiles include legends such as Titanic Thompson and Minnesota Fats. Simultaneously debunking and romanticising these larger than life characters Bradshaw comes very close to understanding what it takes to be a winner.

As you can see, it's these sort of anecdotal books that I find more interesting and illuminating, rather than the sort of advanced manuals that most of us need to read to improve our game. I even prefer According to Doyle over Super System, now that I think about it. The truth is when I read all those Sklansky type books I wasn't ready for many of the concepts in them. Ironically, now that I know a lot more about the game I would get a lot more out of those sorts of books, but because I do know more I can't face ploughing through them anymore. I learnt to play live and I still prefer that. I have always enjoyed the interaction with all the various weirdos and chancers one meets at the poker table -all the bickering and moaning and gallows humour enhances the game for me. In short, it's the people that make the game and I guess that's why I liked the books I listed above.

Speaking of poker players, I'm thinking of writing a few descriptions of the various duckers and divers I have played with at the Vic over the years. Would any of my small handful of readers be interested in that?


David Young said...

I don't recall being dismissive of the book when I read it all those years ago. Are you sure you're not mixing me up with Dominic? He didn't like it.

I remember enjoying the early chapters very much. Stuff like 'you never learn anything when you think you're learning it' and the hustling, nipping etc was spot on. In particular I like the bit in the first chapter where he muses on who is the best player - the one with the greater skill who tilts on the blackjack or the one with less skill who doesn't - then he compares the average player who flies to Vienna to play with the good player who stays in the tougher games in America? Who's the best?

After that, it becomes the classic tale of the means becoming the end - it seems like the characters are getting money as a way to play poker rather than the other way around. But I've not read it in over five years, so my memory of it won't be accurate!


Fred Titmus said...

Write the book, i'll buy it.

the chimney sweep said...

fair enough DY, i guess i confused you with someone else

threecows said...

Confessions of a Poker Player, by Jack King. A 'Shut Up And Deal' of the 1940s.

The Music of Chance, by Paul Auster

Big Deal, by Anthony Holden
This is just too popular to be on the list of a cool cat like Hugo, but big Deal remains a terrific read and is responsible for tons of young fools 'going pro'. I lent Big Deal to my mother (zero poker knowledge) and she LOVED it.

I'm told that the original book of The Cincinnatti Kid, which inspired the film, is supposed to be very good.

Anonymous said...

Shut up and Deal is great, I can worringly relate to many elements within the book. Great blog by the way, funny to hear all the vic goings-on. Glad to be out of all the madness that is poker, but part of me wants to be back at the vic every other day, well maybe not.


Richard Wheatley